A few miles west of Old Town Havana is El Aljibe, a state-owned, open-air restaurant popular with tourists for the family style roast chicken, served the same way for over 60 years.
The first time I heard about El Aljibe was while watching Anthony Bourdain’s show ‘Parts Unknown.’ When I saw Anthony eating perfectly roasted chicken marinated in a secret orange sauce and luscious black beans, I knew I had to try this place.
If you don’t have a rental car, and you are staying in Old Havana, you will have to catch a taxi to reach El Aljibe. The restaurant was located in the residential neighborhood of Miramar, about 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) west of Old Havana. A private taxi from my Airbnb near Plaza Vieja set me back 5 CUC ($5). For those who don’t mind sharing a taxi (taxi particulars or taxi colectivo), the fare should be 10-20 CUP (moneda nacional) or around 50 cents to $1 per person.
Word has gotten out on El Aljibe. I must have been the last to know judging by the number of tour buses lined up outside.
When I say there were tour buses lined up outside the restaurant, I’m not kidding. On my visit, I counted at least five large buses parked just outside.
Being a traveler who prefers to avoid tourist traps, I was a little worried. Since I already made the journey from Old Town Havana by taxi, and with no other options and no WiFi, I decided to to give the place a shot.
The restaurant was divided into two areas.
Inside the open-air, palapa style building were long, family style tables. These tables seemed to be reserved for large groups and tour groups. I was surprised how empty the tables were considering how many tour buses were parked outside. Even with a steady flow of large tour groups arriving, the restaurant seemed as it could have handled many more tourists.
Under a thatched roof, outside the main dining area, were four small tables that could seat four people each. These tables appeared to be reserved for smaller groups or those not with a tour group. Since I was traveling alone, this is where I sat on my visit. I really enjoyed dining outside under the roof with the breeze flowing through on such a hot day. Just watch out for the cute cats who know how to beg for food.
When I first arrived at El Aljibe, the tables outside were full with other diners. I awkwardly stood around for a few minutes without being acknowledged by any of the servers walking by. After about five minutes, a table cleared up. It was only then that a server acknowledged me and led me to one of the outside tables.
The El Aljibe Menu
While the El Aljibe menu featured a wide variety of options to choose from, most come here for the famous roasted chicken served all-you-can-eat.
That’s right, you can stuff yourself full with as much delicious chicken as you can possibly handle. In addition, you get rice, beans, plantains, chips, and vegetables.
Roasted Chicken “El Aljibe”
As mentioned before, the specialty of El Aljibe was none other than the Roasted Chicken “El Aljibe” (12 CUC or $12).
Each order of chicken was served with rice and beans, an assortment of vegetables, and roasted and fried plantains. Everything was served all-you-can-eat family style, so come hungry.
The chicken, well known for its secret bitter orange sauce, was developed over 60 years ago by the mother of the owners of the restaurant. The exact details of this sauce is a closely guarded secret.
Given all the hype, the chicken was quite simple. But it’s chicken. Chicken is supposed to be simple as long as it’s cooked well.
I’m happy to report that the chicken was cooked well. The skin of the breast and thighs, slightly roasted, was less crispy than I would have liked, but it still had enough texture to make me happy. Each bite of the juicy chicken was so tender that it broke apart with my hands, a sign that the chicken was cooked to perfection.
The famous secret sauce, robustly sweet and slightly salty, was thinner than I was expecting. The sauce could be tasted in each and every bite and made the chicken even juicier. Taking a wild guess, the sauce was made with orange juice, garlic, and the rich juices leftover from the pan. Simple yet delicious with a wide range of flavors.
As with every meal in Cuba, you had your rice and black beans on the side. The rice was forgettable but the beans, oh those beans. So simple but oh so luscious, rich, and sweet with the slightest hint of bay leaf. Out of all the places in Havana, I would rate El Aljibe as serving the best black beans. They were that good.
After stuffing myself with chicken and beans, I almost all but ignored the vegetables, fried plantains, and chips. To me, they were filler, but I couldn’t help myself from snacking on the thick and sweet plantains, grilled to tender, smoky perfection.
Now that was a meal.
Service turned out to be much better than I was expecting, especially after those few awkward moments standing around when I first arrived at El Aljibe.
Though the servers spoke limited English, I was surprised how often they walked by my table, asking if i needed another cold beer or a refill on the food.
Just one thing to note. When I received my check for 17.60 CUC, I paid with 20 CUC. A 10% gratuity was already applied to the bill. I should have received change but the server never returned. While I know I could have said something, I decided not to make a big deal over a few CUC. Just be aware of your bill and any change you should receive back.
In a city such as Havana, I was surprisingly disappointed with the variety and quality of the food I tried.
Pork and chicken, rice and beans. That’s about all you will eat on a trip to Havana. While there was nothing wrong with this, I was surprised how many restaurants in Havana screwed up these simple staples of Cuban food. Overcooked and salty meat was what I came to expect.
Luckily, El Aljibe stood out from the rest. The chicken was cooked well, flavorful, and delicious. The price was fair for the quality and being all-you-can-eat, but slightly more expensive than other places in the city.
Worth all the hype? Without a doubt. I would not hesitate to return to El Aljibe on my next visit to Havana.